8,500-year-old tombs in China possibly yield the oldest known evidence of silk

8500-year-tombs-China-oldest-known-silkEarly Neolithic jars from Jiahu, circa 6000-5500 BC. Photograph courtesy of Z Juzhong, University of Science and Technology in China, and Henan Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology.

Previously, the earliest example of silk fabric was known to date from circa 4th millennium BC, with the material being used as a wrapping for a child’s body, from a Yangshao site at Xingyang, China. However this time around, archaeologists have come across evidence of silk (made by silkworms) inside tombs that are around 8,500 – 9,000 years old. The tomb site in question here is situated at Jiahu in the middle of Henan Province, in central China.

Interestingly enough, this particular site surely occupies its special place in history, with previous excavations and researches revealing bone flutes that are possibly the oldest known playable musical instruments. Additionally, the area is possibly home to the oldest known Chinese writing. Given such ‘credentials’ for cultural inventions, it comes as no surprise that old tales also suggest how the Jiahu site is birthplace of silkworm breeding and silk weaving.

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Image Source: National History Magazine.

Based on these stories, researchers from the University of Science and Technology of China (in Hefei) decided to investigate and analyse the site parameters. Now from the perspective of climatology, the area’s warm and humid conditions were already found to be conducive to the growth of mulberry trees, whose leaves are the primary source of nourishment for silkworms. To that end, the researchers made their assessment of the soil samples from three tombs located at the site. The results (based on chemical analysis) have unveiled the presence of silk proteins in at least two of the three aforementioned tombs.

As we can guess from this evidence, it is still pretty difficult to pinpoint the scope of silk usage by the prehistoric inhabitants of the area. However the scientists have hypothesized that the silk was probably used to drape the bodies during their burials. A part of this conjecture is rather reinforced with the discovery of bone needles and weaving tools at at Jiahu. These tools suggest how the local people probably possessed basic weaving skills, which could have led to the making of silk fabric.

Suffice it to say, the scientists need to continue their research and analysis at the site, with their focus on finding more specimens of silk-based material. The study was originally published on December 12th, 2016 in the PLOS ONE journal.

Source: LiveScience / Featured Image Source: The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

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